You must learn to use notes

I keep seeing the debate on should you use notes when speaking or not. Those who aspire to the status of top keynote speakers say notes should not be used it’s unprofessional but many argue the case for having prompts or aide memoirs available. The thing that amazes me is that they talk about speakers as if we had a single purpose which is a long way from my belief which I’ve explained below.

In order to help understand my philosophy I’ve produced Bob’s Speaker Spectrum below.


Bob’s Speaker Spectrum

On the right hand end we have the professional speaker. These are the people who speak for a living and therefore we can regard it as their profession. On the left hand end are the business speakers, who also may do a considerable amount of speaking but this is to support their profession rather than being and end in its own right. The Business Speaker end will typically have people in business who have to speak on project updates, sales presentations, team briefings etc., as well as politicians, preachers and anyone else who speaks regularly as a part of their job. Many speakers will be somewhere between the two extremes in that they may have a principal subject perhaps based on their specialist skills on which they speak regularly as well as having to undertake many ad hoc presentations. However to highlight the differences I’ll just focus on the two extremes of the spectrum.

There are three major differences between the two extremes :

  • Number of speeches.
    Many professional speakers have one speech. It may be customised but in principal it is one speech that they perform many times. Some profess to have three or four speeches but generally there’s one that dominates their business. It also becomes like a self-fulfilling prophesy in that potential clients are likely to hear our best speech and want the same. It’s only when we have a history with our clients that we tend to get the freedom to branch out.However Business Speakers have almost a different speech every time. That may be the changing status of their project, a speech for a special event or a different political issue and therefore they have to deal with new material virtually every time out.
  • The Amount of Preparation Time
    When professionals develop their keynote speech they spend a lot of time and effort doing it. The speech may be the result of many months of research, there will definitely be a considerable amount of speech writing time, rehearsal time and probably a number of run outs in front of friendly audiences to check the flow and get some feedback before they start delivering it commercially.The business speakers have no such luxury. They have to deliver speeches at short notice on new subjects and (particularly in the case of politicians) the speech may be researched and written by others so that there total preparation time is reading the speech in the car on the way to the event!
  • The use of notes
    The professional speakers having spent a long time researching and developing a speech which they then perform many times over clearly have no need of notes. Why would they? The repetition alone will help the speech stay clearly in their mind.The business speakers however often have little preparation and almost no repetition clearly need notes and equally rightly so. Who would think it’s valuable use of the Prime Minister’s or senior business leader’s time sitting down to try and remember a speech just so they don’t have to use notes. It’s not, and we’ll often see the Prime Minister go to a function with a sheaf of notes that have been prepared for him, probably with one read through. And yet when he performs he does so excellently with brief reference to his notes and no loss of engagement with the audience.

So, for me, it seems that the debate is not about whether speakers should use notes or not it’s about under what circumstances do we expect speakers to use notes. Given that we could all be in a position to use notes if the circumstances are right, then it also seems logical that our efforts should be to teach all new speakers how to use notes effectively so that they have a choice.

When I have to use notes I either use small flesh pink card (so the audience doesn’t see the flash of white on my hand as it moves) or I use a speech map (rather like a mind map) which I put on a music stand set at under waist height. That way I can see my aide memoirs clearly but it doesn’t interfere with my engagement or eye contact with the audience. I also put small props on my music stand so I’m not retreating to the back corners of the stage, where the lecterns normally are (!) to retrieve my props.

I think the case is clear. We should all learn to speak well with notes and to work without them where possible and Toastmasters is a great place to build both the skills of speaking with and without notes, but also the art of impromptu speaking in case you ever get stuck on the stage without your words. But I know that not everyone will be convinced so I offer this further evidence.

Think of the great speakers of the last century: John F Kennedy’s “Man on the Moon” speech; Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”; Winston Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches” speech. Probably three of the greatest speeches ever made – all of them  behind a lectern with notes! Great platform skills can undoubtedly enhance a presentation but ultimately it is the content that makes our speeches valuable. I know a top keynote speaker who often has an aide memoir on the table with his water. He reckons that the speaker’s fees are based on the value he imparts to the audience and how they go on to use that information in their business so he feels he has a duty to make sure everything is right not to worry about whether he has to look at a note to ensure he includes all his key points.

Still not convinced…..

In 1904 a young Winston Churchill was making a speech from memory in the House of Commons. He lost his way and like most speakers who memorise their words went back and tried to repeat the same sentence in the hope the rest of the words would come.. but they didn’t. In the end he had to sit down mid-speech and the papers said he was humiliated and would never speak again in public. Thankfully he did, but never without having notes available.

I think if it was good enough for Churchill it should be OK for the rest of us. What do you think?

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